Best known internationally for his chilly, haunting melodramas Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008), Christian Petzold has yet again teamed up with actress Nina Hoss for his latest film Barbara. Hoss gives a mesmerising performance as Barbara Wolff, a doctor who has applied for an exit visa from the GDR only to find herself transferred from Berlin to a provincial hospital in the countryside, spied upon by the Stasi while her lover in the West is secretly preparing to help her escape via the Baltic Sea. Like all Petzold’s films, Barbara is informed by the director’s background in literature and cinema history, and yet it stands in its own right as a subtly balanced, emotionally restrained and elegantly shot drama crafted by a real auteur, with a style, vision and worldview entirely his own.
Pamela Jahn talked to Christian Petzold at this year’s 62nd edition of the Berlin International Film Festival in February where Barbara premiered in Competition and earned him the Silver Bear for Best Director.
Pamela Jahn: Your films are often inspired by literature. In Yella, for example, you are borrowing your genre conventions from James M. Cain’s cult pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Your new film Barbara, however, feels more like a classic novella.
Christian Petzold: There are two books that served as an inspiration for me this time: Hermann Broch’s novella Barbara, which is set in 1928 and tells the story of a female doctor who takes a job in a rural hospital in order to hide her communist activities from the police, and Werner Bräunig’s novel Rummerplatz. In Bräunig’s book a doctor’s son is consumed by physical work for the first time in a uranium mine. He defines himself through this work, which is interesting because work as a theme had almost completely disappeared from the literature and cinema in the West. Another aspect that appealed to me was that the book tells how women replaced the workers who had been wooed by the West, which somewhat gave those women a new purpose and self-understanding, and I wanted to tell a story about this.
Barbara marks your fifth collaboration with actress Nina Hoss. How would you describe your work relationship?
Part of the reason why we work together so well is because we help each other develop and, at the same time, with each film our work relationship grows stronger. For example, when we were shooting Jerichow I felt that I had to do something different in my next film, especially with the ending, because I realised that I kept pushing Nina into tragedy every single time; like a writer, who keeps killing his heroine at some point so he can finish this book and get on to a new story. I got really annoyed with myself for always working within that same pattern. When Nina and I talked about the final scene, I told her that, next time, I would like to make a film with an open ending and we ended up having a very long conversation about what this means for my work, for our work, and for what we’re trying to achieve, which helped me a lot. And that’s the great thing about our collaboration: that we can have those conversations and support and inspire each other. That’s what makes it so exciting for me.
Aside from working with Nina Hoss, you have developed a very special way of casting people.
Yes, when I start casting for a new film, I first listen to the voices of actors. If you ask me, all these talent agencies should send out CDs instead of DVDs; there is much more to get from listening to voices. But if you find an actress like Nina Hoss and you work together for so many years, your attitude towards the character changes in a way. I don’t really describe her anymore in the script, which means she somewhat appears out of a situation; I don’t need to support her literarily because she already exists. But at the same time, I also need to keep a sort of respectful distance from that particular character.
Barbara is set in former communist East Germany in 1980. What fascinated you about this particular era and how did you approach it, since you grew up in West Germany?
My parents fled the GDR when I was still very young, so I grew up in the Western part of Germany. But my parents kept travelling back to the East part quite regularly and they took my brothers and me with them, so East Germany was not so unfamiliar to me. The problem is the kind of stuffiness that exists in Germany, that narrow thinking that only someone who has lived through a story has the right to tell it. But if you look at the great works of world literature, many of these stories are actually told from the perspective of an outsider. Like in The Great Gatsby, for example, the narrator is the only character who is dead. With Barbara, it was very important to me that the actors understand my particular perspective. Before I start shooting, I always watch selected films with my team in order to get everyone in the mood and, this time, one of the films we watched during the rehearsals was The French Connection. There is a scene in the film in which Gene Hackman’s character, [Jimmy] Doyle, wanders back to his apartment after a long shift and suddenly gets attacked by a sniper. What makes this sequence so fascinating and one of the most frenetic moments in the film is the perspective. Normally, any director would cut from Gene Hackman walking down the street to the sniper and then follow him through the reticle just before the gunshot to build up tension and suspense. But the film doesn’t do that: instead the camera keeps at eye level with Hackman during the entire chase. Only after 15 minutes of chasing the sniper through the jammed streets of New York, only in the very moment when Doyle seems to have caught himself in a dead end, when he struggles to stay in control, that’s when the camera changes its perspective and points at him. What I was trying to explain with this sequence was the importance of my viewpoint in Barbara, which is similar in terms of the camera position. I wanted everyone to understand why the camera has to be in a certain spot, why can’t it be anywhere else because that would change my perspective on the story.
It is your first historical film. How difficult was it for you to reconstruct the setting of the GDR in the early 1980s?
What I wanted to achieve with Barbara was to make a historical film but without evoking history merely through the setting where you have the hammer and sickle symbol in every frame. Instead, I tried to create an open space. There is a nice anecdote about François Truffaut and Jean Renoir having a conversation about Renoir’s The Golden Coach . Truffaut was of the opinion that you could only do history in the studio, you couldn’t show any sky, because the sky is always the sky of today. Renoir disagreed. In his view, you had to use both the studio and the sky, as in the historical and the present. If you pretend that the film was only about the past with no relation to our present time, then the film itself would be a lie. And I thought I actually agree with Renoir, which is why in Barbara, you see lots of sky, lots of wind, and lots of colour. But there was another aspect that was important to me in that regard: I watched Chinatown  again because it’s a historical film and I kept wondering why the Los Angeles of the 1930s that is recreated in the film never feels like a German historical film, for example. I realised that it is because of the different aggregate states at play such as heat, drought, and male and female sweat, and I think all this is linked together. Or, take Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons , he also managed to create a sense of the historical atmosphere with very little means, but still to great effect. It’s almost like a childhood memory, like with Proust, you smell something and history begins to unfold. The only other option would have been to go with Bresson, cool and distanced. Those were the two options I considered and, ultimately, I decided to go with The Merchant of Four Seasons.
Looking at your previous films, they seem to be strongly informed by the fundamental cracks in German society.
I find it very difficult to think about why this is, but it seems obvious that I am interested in people who don’t feel comfortable in their skin. I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that my parents fled the GDR and when we first got to West Germany I spent quite some time in transitional housing and never got the feeling that I arrived anywhere properly. I always felt more like an outsider myself, whereas my parents desperately tried to adapt to their new surroundings but, at the same time, it made them become even more estranged. All these are themes that worry me in a way but I think that, one day, I’ll just pay for a psychoanalyst to get to the bottom of it all (laughs). That said, my next film also follows a similar line – I just can’t help it.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your new film?
It’s set in Berlin in 1945, so it’s a historical film again. In short, it’s about a woman who survived Auschwitz and she now wants her life back.
Do you feel you had to go through different steps in your career before you could approach that part of German history?
No, it was not quite like that. The story almost fell in my hands in a way. My long-term co-author Harun Farocki and I read a crime novel from 1946 which had a similar plot line. That was about two or three years ago and for some reason it stuck with me. But it’s true that, back then, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. A Jewish woman, Berlin, the Holocaust, it felt too charged, too close to me then.
How do you explain your particular interest in female characters?
Good question. To answer that, I probably have to go through at least 10 years of psychotherapy (laughs). No, honestly, I think some filmmakers have a preference for male characters and then there are others, who are more interested in female characters. David Lynch, for example, is a ‘women director’ in that way, and John Ford is a ‘male director’. That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, it’s just how you project yourself into the world. And the way I look at women in my films is not like a pure Hitchcockian look, where the woman functions as an erotic object for the desiring look of the male. I am not fetishising anything. Especially with Nina, it’s more like there is someone whom I don’t know and who I can’t be, who is something completely strange to me. It’s like these female characters are somehow caught in a different world, like in exile, and they’re trying to get back in touch with the world I live in, the world we all live in. On the other hand, with my camera I am somewhat in exile too, and from there I keep trying to get to the core of the story. This is how it all correlates.
Nina Hoss has said elsewhere that she would love to make a comedy with you one day. Can you imagine yourself doing that too?
Of course Nina said that, because she is great in comedies (laughs). And I would love to make a comedy too. But it’s incredibly difficult to make a really good comedy and so I keep putting it off just as I keep putting off to quit smoking. I guess I am just not ready for it yet.
Interview by Pamela Jahn